March 12, 2021

"There were a few people who knew about those pictures, but I didn’t show them publicly at all. I didn’t bother promoting myself."

"Even now, I don’t promote myself. I do photography because I love it. Money isn’t going to make a better picture for me and it is not going to make me happier. I wasn’t working for the work to be shown or seen, I was working for the pleasure of doing the work itself. I guess the reason I didn’t show my work is I was always busy going onto the next thing." 

From "Interview: Aaron Rose’s Coney Island" (Popular Photography, 2014).

What did you like about shooting at Coney Island? 

The gutsiness. To be amongst people in the flesh... where else can you find such a great array of shapes and forms? 

What were some of your favorite scenes to shoot at the beach? 

I liked the big fat men. When they laid down their bellies stuck out and bulged out. I just find it very comical, very cartoonish.... It’s the real people... kind of stark reality, in a very sunny atmosphere.... I used a Leica 35 mm camera with a wide-angle lens and a slight telephoto lens....

No one ever saw me taking their picture, that much I know.

How were you able to keep people from realizing that you were photographing them?

I would look, just like everybody else observing on the beach.... I would walk by with my camera on my side. I never put the camera up to my eyes. They never saw me taking their picture, but by that time I knew I already had the picture in my field and I just continued walking on...

 Lots of photographs at the link, where I got via "Aaron Rose, Photographer Whose Work Long Went Unseen, Dies at 84/Spurning commercialism, he made thousands of one-of-a-kind prints that for decades he largely kept to himself. Then came a show at the Whitney" (NYT). 

Mr. Rose was that rarest of artists: one who doesn’t chase after gallery shows or sales to deep-pocketed collectors. In a 1997 interview with The New York Times in advance of his Whitney Biennial debut, he explained that his low profile had been by choice. “All around me I saw people who became cynical and bitter when they didn’t get the recognition they thought they deserved, and I wanted to be free of that,” he said. “I wanted only to do my work, for myself, without any commercial influences.”...

You might guess that he was living on family wealth, but it was quite the opposite:

Aaron was raised in foster homes.... His introduction to photography came when a portrait photographer he had met at one of those foster homes hired him as an assistant to hold lights and reflectors....When Mr. Rose graduated from the High School of Performing Arts in 1955, he went into commercial photography and eventually began shooting pictures for his own pleasure.

On the side he collected antique hand tools, which proved a vital pastime: In the 1960s he sold his collection of tools to the Eli Lilly Company for a considerable sum, and in 1969 he used the proceeds to buy a building in SoHo, a neighborhood that was about to transition from industrial to trendy. He rented out part of the building to support himself and lived and worked in the rest...

Absolutely perfect!

Mr. Rose made his own cameras and other devices, and Rebecca Hackemann, who was his assistant and archivist from 1999 to 2005, said his studio was a sight to behold. “It was littered with glass and silver globes, optical devices and cameras he had built himself that replaced lenses with pinholes,” she said by email. “It was like walking into a different century.”

In his darkroom, he spurned the ready-made chemicals available from Kodak and other manufacturers; its walls were lined with bottles and cans full of mysterious substances....


tim maguire said...

A shame the pictures The Times chose to reproduce for the article are mostly uninteresting (Greenwood Cemetery being the only exception). Not even one fat Russian in a speedo with the ferris wheel or rusted out parachute drop in the background.

Kay said...

Really great story. I can relate to him.

Jamie said...

The pictures in the Coney Island article are... I don't know what they are. I want to call them "lovely," but that's not right. "True"? They warm me. Which is weird, because no one seems actually to be having a good time.

Except the couple apparently engaged in coitus behind the Jack LaLanne type.

Kay said...

I’ve been really loving the paintings I’ve made lately. For me it’s enough to just show them to a friend at this point. Sometimes I give them away. I’m really excited about the direction I’m moving in. But I can’t bring myself to play the art game anymore.

rehajm said...

Jerry Seinfeld : Elaine, what percentage of people would you say are good looking?
Elaine Benes : 25 percent.
Jerry Seinfeld : 25 percent, you say? No way! It's like 4 to 6 percent. It's a 20 to 1 shot.
Elaine Benes : You're way off.
Jerry Seinfeld : Way off? Have you been to the motor vehicle bureau? It's like a leper colony down there.
Elaine Benes : So what you are saying is that 90 to 95 percent of the population is undateable?
Jerry Seinfeld : UNDATEABLE!

Can Of Cheese for Hunter said...

there is something mighty brave about being out of shape and mostly naked... in public.

Tom T. said...

Contemptible jerk, in my view. My imperfections are not there for his amusement.

Meade said...

What a great role model. A true American flâneur.

Daniel Jackson said...

A very moving and inspiring piece. I love the Stiglitz inspired tones blending light into the subject. The images in the NYT bespeaks of the early days of the craft and the famous f/64 group.

What resonated with me is this piece from the Times:

"Though Mr. Rose shunned exhibiting his works for many years, his thinking began to change in the 1990s.

"“He wasn’t interested really in selling them,” Mr. Corcoran said in a phone interview. “He was interested in them being seen.”

"In 1995 he exhibited nature photographs at the John Froats Gallery in the Hudson River village of Cold Spring, N.Y."

I know this motivation well: the desire is to show and hear ones work rather than sell it. It is not that such artisans (and clearly Rose was an artisan rather than an artist) reject commercial sales; it is the desire to share what they produce for the sake of the work itself.

Having done the same in France with 25+ expositions--to show rather than sell--it is nice to have validation that others before me have done the same.

I love the portrait of Rose in his atelier--it looks well ordered; not chaotic.

Joe Smith said...

I am a long-time member of another site specializing in a particular hobby/obsession.

Along with forums dedicated to that hobby, there is a photography forum.

One of the members posts some of the most beautiful photos I've seen in a long time.

They strike me because the composition is world-class...almost no people and mostly street scenes.

I messaged him and asked it he had thought about trying to get them published.

No, he had a different job and just did them for fun.

Joe Smith said...

Btw, enough grain there to start a bakery : )

rrsafety said...

The NYTimes photos are ... yuck.
The Coney Island ones hold some interest.

John Holland said...

Thanks for bringing this man to my attention. The Coney Island photographs are really something. Never been there myself, but it's well known to be a great location for candid photography. To get an idea of what Mr. Rose was wading through to get his pictures, take a look at this:

Before aircon became near-universal, about 1 million New Yorkers would congregate at that beach on a holiday weekend. Near-infinite possibilities for the patient photographer.

I used to work in a photo lab, and so it's amazing to me that he was able to push those early color print processes so far and so hard. Kodak didn't release a 1000 ASA film commercially until about 20 years later.

daskol said...

Very cool. It's from a few years earlier, but the photos remind me of the Coney Island scenes from Imitation of Life.

TML said...

Nice, but Elliott Erwitt's eye is better.

3john2 said...

Reminds me a bit of Vivian Maier, an unknown photographer who captured remarkable portraits and street scenes in New York, Chicago and other places without ever showing them. Her images weren't public until a photographer bought several stored crates of her slides and negatives at an estate sale.

Temujin said...

I love this kind of stuff. Thanks, Althouse.